Two-time ovarian cancer survivor: How the Moon Shots Program helped me
I was in Mexico in the summer of 2013 when I came down with a bad case of diarrhea. That’s a pretty common complaint among travelers, so I figured it was just an intestinal bug. The problem continued off and on for several weeks, even after I returned to the States. I tried to ignore it and just get on with my life, but I’m a middle school teacher, and summer is my break time. I had training and traveling to do.
Then I started feeling very bloated. It wasn’t really painful, just extremely uncomfortable — and it was pretty severe. The bloating worried me enough that I finally went to an emergency room. I had a CT scan, and the doctors said I had “ascites,” or large pockets of fluid in my abdomen. They released me without treatment and recommended I see an oncologist.
The suggestion that I might have cancer surprised me. Still, I didn’t take it seriously. Instead, I contacted a friend who’s a gastroenterologist. He referred me to an oncologist, too. I was officially diagnosed with high-grade serous ovarian cancer in August 2013.
An ovarian cancer diagnosis
I lead a pretty healthy lifestyle and had been running marathons for years. So the ovarian cancer diagnosis came as a shock. But my late husband had been treated for melanoma at MD Anderson years earlier, so I knew it was the best place to go. I called and got an appointment with Kathleen Schmeler, M.D., that same week.
As part of a new approach that MD Anderson’s taking to ovarian cancer through its Moon Shots Program™, Dr. Schmeler performed a laparoscopy (an exploration of the abdominal cavity using a small flexible scope) before I started treatment. This helped her determine when surgery should be performed. If my cancer had spread a lot, I’d need to do chemo first to shrink the tumors. But if it was small enough and hadn’t spread, I’d have surgery first.
Because I had sprinklings of tumor all around my abdomen, my cancer was deemed too advanced to have surgery first. So I started with nine weeks of chemotherapy to reduce the number of cancer cells in my body. Then I had a complete hysterectomy and “de-bulking” surgery (in which all visible evidence of cancer was removed), followed by nine more weeks of chemotherapy. I finished treatment in January 2014 and remained cancer-free for three years.
Staying positive in the face of a recurrence
When I started feeling bloated again last winter, I asked Dr. Schmeler if I could come in for a CA 125 test. CA 125 is a protein made by the body that can be elevated in cancer patients. Sure enough, my levels were high, too. I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer a second time in January 2017.
Being re-diagnosed was a little disappointing. But life happens. Because we caught it so early, you could barely even see the tiny sprinklings of cancer throughout my abdomen. This time, my treatment consisted of six rounds of chemo over 18 weeks. I finished my last infusion on May 19, 2017, and today, I show no evidence of disease.
Gratitude for the Moon Shots Program
I find it very reassuring to know that ovarian cancer is one of the diseases MD Anderson is targeting through its Moon Shots Program. MD Anderson has some of the smartest doctors in the world, and they are on the cutting edge of research. They’re also doing great things against melanoma, which my late husband fought for 18 years.
I got in on the new ovarian cancer protocol the very first month they began using it, which was a real blessing. Otherwise, I’d have had surgery first, then 18 weeks of chemo. And my outcome may not have been as positive.
I meet so many people at MD Anderson who have traveled thousands of miles to get there. But it's right down the freeway from me, so why wouldn't I take advantage of it? MD Anderson doctors want to get rid of your cancer, not just buy you time. They saved my life. And I am incredibly thankful.